More than half the global population lives in metropolitan areas, and this proportion will likely increase throughout the 21st century. A significant contributor to this growth will be immigrants and other newcomers. The opportunities that metro areas offer, economic and otherwise, place cities on the front line of immigrant integration. Cities are the laboratories where solutions to the challenges related to migration are being tested.
Scholars argue that supporting and welcoming new immigrant arrivals help them to integrate more rapidly into their new society. But while there is much excitement about the potential for cities to lead on immigrant integration, cities’ powers are limited by their jurisdictions and the multiple levels of government within which they are situated. According to prominent immigration and urban researchers John Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor, immigration policy is fundamentally asymmetrical: the federal government determines how many immigrants enter the country, but “it falls to local and regional jurisdictions to frame the living experience of immigrants [and to] mount the programs that integrate them.”
In the United States, the 2016 presidential election marked a dramatic course change for federal immigration policy. After a campaign in which immigration was a central and hotly debated issue, President Donald Trump swiftly began restricting or terminating immigration programs implemented by previous administrations. Changes have included travel bans for persons from certain countries; intentional delays of the legal immigration system; attempted rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that prevents undocumented children brought to the United States from being deported; and “zero tolerance” policies that separate and detain children from parents seeking asylum in the United States.
Of course, the challenges facing immigrants have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As President Trump continues to announce policies intended to stem immigration, the need for cities to take on leadership roles has become more stark than ever.
The emergence of city leadership on migration agendas, including through global networks such as the Mayors Migration Council and the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration, suggests there are new opportunities on the horizon. Through city diplomacy and sharing of best practices, cities are learning what other cities are doing and bringing home ideas to implement locally. In Hamburg, Germany, for example, the mayor’s office extends an invitation to immigrants when they have met all the qualifications necessary to apply for citizenship, explaining the process for application rather than leaving this responsibility to immigrants. In Spain, cities across the country came together to shape a new national policy for welcoming refugees.
As Simon Curtis, professor at the University of East Anglia, wrote, “the international system of the future is unlikely to look anything like those international systems of the past.” Cities are at the forefront of innovative approaches to solving global challenges, and Chicago is well positioned to collect new ideas from around the world and implement them locally. In turn, the city and region can elevate its leadership on the global stage as a bold city taking on cutting-edge policies and providing services and opportunities for all who choose Chicago as their home.
This project was made possible with generous support from the Walder Foundation.